Irish golf is in rude health with four current Irish players with Major wins on their CVs and an Irishman top of the World Rankings. Hoping to join Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington playing in one of the major golf tours is former Shamrock Rovers player Stephen Grant. Grant begins playing on the European Challenge Tour this month, the tour that is just one level below the European PGA tour.
It was in 2005 that Grant made the switch from professional football to professional golf having played over 150 times for Shamrock Rovers as well as playing with Waterford United and Stockport County amongst others. In 2007, he shot a course record 64 at the West of Ireland Championship in Rosses Point leaving a certain up and coming golfing star Rory McIlroy behind him in the field!
In recent years he has been living in Florida playing in events on the US Gateway Tour. Grant shares a coach with multi-major winner Ernie Els as he works with Butch Harmon and his son Claude Harmon III. He now has his sights firmly set on a place on the European Tour and the Challenge Tour is the stepping-stone for that.
Grant spoke to Macdara Ferris of ExtraTime.ie after the former Ireland under 21 international footballer recently returned from Rabat in Morocco where he had to withdraw from an event on the European Development Tour due to illness. “I’ve got a tournament on the European Challenge Tour on the 10 May in France,” said Grant about the forthcoming Allianz Open Cotes d’Armour Bretagne. “I’m going to playing a number of tournaments on the Challenge Tour. If you finish top 25 on the order of merit on the Challenge Tour, you get your full European Tour card.”
The man from Birr will be hoping to get his automatic card rather than having to go to qualifying school again to attain the coveted full European Tour place. Last year, he missed out on qualification for the final section of ‘Q school’ by just two shots. “If I can’t card this way,” said Grant about the Challenge Tour option, “I can always go to Q school. The last two years I’ve been getting really close to where I need to be to get my card.”
In the modern golf game, it is key to have a high level of fitness and that isn’t a problem for the former professional footballer. “To be honest, my fitness levels this time last year were unbelievable. I got my body fat down to 8%. I was training like crazy. I almost found I was probably overtraining and I was neglecting practicing my short game. This year I’m still really fit. I still train real hard and while I’m not as fit as last year, I’m playing better golf this year as I’m spending more time practicing my short game.”
It is on the greens that Grant feels he needs to improve if he is to make the step up to the top level of the game here in Europe. “Putting is probably the thing I’ve found the hardest. On the greens for me it has gotten a lot better as I’ve gone for a belly putter over the last four or five months and that has helped a lot. My course management is getting better. That has been costing me shots but that is down to experience.”
Experience is something that is only now beginning to come to Grant as he only became a golf pro at the age of 27. “I probably only played five or six times in my life before my mid 20s. I never played Youth or Boys golf or anything like that.” So does he feel he can realistically make the step up and get a card on the European Tour? “The difference is experience and that bit of consistency. The top players’ game is at a certain level and it is at that certain level more often. That really is the key. The gap is not massive at all.
“The thing that amazes me is that there is such a fine line. There are guys out there making millions of dollars a year and they are good but they are not that good. McIlroy is a player who I’ve played with and you see how stupidly good he is! But I play with guys who are good but aren’t that special and they are making a million and a half as a player.”
Grant regularly tees it up in Florida with players like Ricky Fowler (US Ryder Cup Player), Keegan Bradley (winner of the US PGA Championship in 2011) and US PGA Tour players Kris Blanks and Steve Marino. “If I’m playing with someone like Kris Blanks and he is handing my arse to me every time we tee it up by five shots then I know I’m not good enough. But I’m playing money games with these guys and that is not the case. I’m taking money off them and they are taking money off me. I have the will to keep going and I’m seeing my scores get better.”
So what are the major differences between playing professional football, like he did for 10 years, and professional golf? “It is different in a sense that the golf is totally down to what I do myself. Soccer is different. It is opinions, how you play and the team around you. I can’t make any excuses. There is nowhere to hide.”
Macdara made his debut as a football supporter in Lansdowne Road watching Ireland defeat Liechtenstein. He still believes one day he will see his club Shamrock Rovers win an FAI Cup. You can follow Macdara on twitter @macdarabueller